René Girard’s Genius and Generosity

A longtime friend and student of the renowned critic and philosopher recalls how Girard emphasized the necessity of aspiring to personal sanctity

Editor’s note: René Girard, the influential literary critic and Catholic philosopher, died on November 4 at the age of 91 after a long illness. Born on Christmas Day, 1923 in Avignon, Girard studied medieval history at the École des Chartes, Paris, and then came to the United States in 1947. After earning his doctorate at Indiana University, he held acadmic posts at Duke University, Bryn Mawr College, Johns Hopkins University, and the State University of New York in Buffalo. In 1981 he became the Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature, and Civilization at Stanford University, and he remained at Stanford until retiring in 1997. He was the author of over two dozen books, most notably Violence and the Sacred (1977) and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1987). He was elected to the prestigious Académie française in 2005, and was awarded the Order of Isabella the Catholic, Commander by Number, by the Spanish head of state, H.M. King Juan Carlos, in 2013.

The following tribute is adapted in part from the forthcoming book Raising the Ante: God’s Gamble by Gil Bailie, a long-time friend and student of René Girard.

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Girard’s Intellectual Genius

Until his retirement in 1997, René Girard held the Andrew B. Hammond Chair of French Language, Literature and Civilization at Stanford University. In 2005 he was elected to the French Academy. His work in the fields of literature, the humanities, and social science led him to recognize some quite obvious but rarely thematized anthropological facts: namely that, above and beyond instinctual appetite, there is a form of desire that profoundly shapes and fairly defines human motivation, namely mimetic desire, desire aroused by another’s desire and that easily leads to rivalry with the model whose desire one imitates. This bears on the question of hominization inasmuch as culture became necessary for survival precisely when the instinctive dominance-submission mechanisms that served to curtail violence in the animal kingdom proved inadequate to that task in the case of a creature endowed with seemingly insatiable, metaphysical, and fickle desires, all too prone to replicate the desires of others.

Human desire, Girard argues, is always aroused, redirected, and intensified by the desire of another. We desire what we see another desiring, striving to obtain, or enjoying. Two children in a room full of toys inevitably want the same toy, and the more emphatically each expresses a desire for it, the more the other desires it and the more heated the rivalry between the two becomes. Far from outgrowing our childhood predilection for imitating the desires of others, experience teaches us to engage in the mimetic contest in ever more subtle, complex, and self-deluding ways. Every reaching for a desired object or gloating over its possession amounts to a public declaration of the object’s desirability. Those who witness such a gesture will be encouraged by it to desire the same object, depending more on the prestige the model enjoys in the eyes of the imitator than on the inherent desirability of the object. The second aspirant for possession of the object will find himself in conflict with the one from whom he learned to desire it. The resulting conflict will have two social ramifications. First, the desire for the object will be intensified by the proximity of a rival claimant – proximity understood in both the physical and social sense. Secondly, the escalating desire of the rivals will further glamorize the object of desire, not only in the eyes of the existing rivals, but also in the eyes of onlookers, who will tend to imitate the intensifying desires of the existing antagonists and join in the struggle to possess the object. As more rivals enter the fray and the conflict grows more intense and polyvalent, the rivals will become increasingly more obsessed (negatively) with each other than they originally were (positively) with the object over which the rivalry began. It is at this point that the phenomenon loses its center and takes on a life of its own. As long as all rivals are preoccupied with the object of desire, the social drama has a focus and therefore a degree of rationality. With the intensification of the rivalry, however, the rivals shift their attention from the object over which they are in conflict to the most proximate rival for its possession. Thus, by a process that Girard masterfully thematized, there comes into being a completely undifferentiated and increasingly violent brawl over precisely nothing, now operating in predictable ways toward a predictable outcome.

Once the passions born of mimetic rivalry overwhelmed the instincts that kept them in check in the animal world, the survival of primitive humanity depended on the acquisition of cultural procedures for constraining these passions. The question is: how can such violence be transformed into the nascent social consensus upon which conventional culture depends? The fiercer the conflict, the more susceptible those caught up in it will be to mimetic suggestion. The penultimate stage of the crisis consists of innumerable concurrent rivalries, each merging indistinguishably into others in its vicinity. Though purely the product of mimetic reciprocity, these conflicts are characterized by what, for simplicity’s sake, we can call accusatory gestures. For each rival will behave as though his immediate bête noire is the ultimate adversary, the one responsible for the overall crisis. As the binary rivalries escalate in intensity and contaminate each other, those caught up in them grow more susceptible to mimetic suggestion at the same time that accusations most likely to be imitated grow both more fantastic and impassioned. If nothing arrests the process, it is inevitable that one of the “accusations” will eventually be expressed so flamboyantly that those in its vicinity will succumb to its mimetic effects and redirect their own animosity accordingly. Whereas an acquisitive gesture, when imitated, leads to envy, rivalry, and conflict, an accusatory gesture unites those who surrender to its mimetic appeal, lending the accusation a moral certitude directly proportional to the degree of social unanimity it generates. The logic of the mimetic phenomenon, in the absence of any countervailing force, will lead inevitably and precipitously to complete social polarization, or in Girard’s phrase: “unanimity minus one.”

In the eyes of the terrified mob, the hapless creature who has suddenly become, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “the observed of all observers” is catapulted into the status of a metaphysical being – a superhuman monster. The social apotheosis of this unfortunate creature survives his death at the hands of the mob, for his death coincides with the startling transformation of the terror of violence into the peace of a community unified by its single-minded goal of destroying the monster. So abruptly is the victim’s monstrosity turned to beneficence that the valence of his metaphysical status is simply reversed. In the bewildered eyes of the newly formed community he is seen to be a god, thanks to whom the community has mysteriously been saved from the terrors that prevailed while the god was threatening destruction. Quite logically, the beneficiaries of this blessed peace replicate as best they can the process that produced it. They reenact the drama in rituals of blood sacrifice; they recount the event that turned madness into peace in their myths, and they establish taboos to prevent a spontaneous eruption of this crisis.

Morally and epistemologically, the frenzied mob has eyes that cannot see and ears that cannot hear; they “know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). So abruptly is the terrifying chaos replaced by an intense and never before experienced social solidarity, that the survivors ascribe religious meaning to its dénouement. The newfound community attributes its otherwise inexplicable peace to the death of the victim, who is deified according to an interpretation which our primitive ancestors would have found quite plausible. The victim, who in life was a metaphysical monster, is transcendentalized in death while retaining his terrifying potential. This interpretation of the event gives rise to religious anxieties that are propitiatory rather than pious, for our ancient ancestors saw the gods as a threat to be kept at bay by apotropaic offerings of blood – ritual replicas of the murder which brought a social crisis to a cathartic dénouement and conjured a community into being by providing it with a god to worship, fear, and appease. Archaic religion is born.

Inasmuch as the myths that recount such events are massive misrecognitions of what actually happened, they vary considerably from one cultural setting to another. One of Girard’s great contributions was to detect the underlying unity of these mythological accounts, recognizing in each the role of all-against-one violence in the generation of humanity’s original cultural structures. The relationship between archaic rituals and the myths that provided their narrative template is obvious. The challenge early researchers faced was that of discerning the nature of that relationship. The Enlightenment bias had ill-prepared the late nineteenth century anthropologists for reckoning with raw religious phenomena, and seeds of today’s preoccupation with “texts” were already germinating, the intellectual residue of the Reformation subordination of altar to pulpit. The prevailing bias gave rise to an assumption about the relationship between myth and ritual, namely that the myths came first, born of nothing more troubling than the creative imagination of our ancestors, the rituals being merely later dramatic performances of the mythic narratives.

To suggest that what Girard calls the surrogate victim mechanism is what made human culture possible may seem baffling to those unfamiliar with his work and the anthropological data for which it accounts, but it is no more so than the related Christian claim that humans have been freed from the power of sin and death by a victim whose innocence neither the religious and political powers that sanctioned it nor the excited mob that demanded it were capable of obscuring. The central event of the Christian drama reveals the truth about how (fallen) human culture and religion came into being, “things hidden since the foundation of the world” (Matt 13:35). In light of the foregoing, at least anthropologically speaking, the “sin (singular) of the world” (John 1:29) can be seen as the endlessly reenacted drama whereby the community purges itself of its sins (plural) by offloading the animosities born of these sins onto one figure – the “scapegoat.” In revealing the innocence of the Victim on Golgotha, and thereby progressively crippling the efficacy of this preternatural ruse for taking away sins, Christ, the Lamb of God, takes away the sin of the world, which is precisely fallen humanity’s way of turning sins into an unearned and delusional experience of moral righteousness at the expense of its victims.

Beginning with discoveries and insights gained from the careful reading of first literature and then anthropology, Girard turned to the scriptures, only to find there an anthropological perspicacity that completely distinguished this tradition, and in light of which the continuity between the Old and New Testaments came more clearly into focus. Girard saw the mounting chorus of anti-sacrificial admonitions issued by the prophets and the sympathy for the victim found in the psalms and wisdom literature as evidence of the Bible’s religious and moral movement toward the culminating, history-altering revelation of the Cross. Those who might regard Girard’s work as the reduction of the mystery of Christian redemption to a moral repudiation of an odious example of human sinfulness are mistaken. Not only has Girard shown how profoundly and unavoidably humans are implicated in the sacrificial paradigm, but his discovery of these things was accompanied by the deepening of his Catholic faith, sacramental participation, and personal piety – indicative of both his humility and of the gravity of the anthropological conclusions to which his researches led him.

Girard’s Spiritual Generosity

I first met Girard many years ago when he came to my office in Sonoma to spend the day with a group of biblical scholars discussing the implications of his work for biblical exegesis. Girard began the day by speaking for a hour or so about his work, which proved to be material enough to fuel the discussion for the rest of the day. The burden of Girard’s interventions was more or less that the Gospel was the driving force in human history, gradually plunging the world into a choice between the truth revealed by Christ and apocalyptic violence. At the end of the day, one of the scholars, reeling from the sweeping implications of what he had heard, asked Girard what should be done in the face of such a challenge. To the best of my memory – I have recounted this story many times – René replied: “Our situation does not lend itself to being easily ‘fixed.’ We are each called to different tasks, but perhaps we should all begin by striving for personal sanctity.”

In the years that followed I grew to know René quite well, and I spent many hours with him. He was always fearless and unflinching in defending Christianity, but he did not wear his personal spirituality on his sleeve. And yet, the more I got to know him – speaking of faith together and occasionally attending a traditional Gregorian Mass with him – the clearer it became how central to his life was his aspiration to personal sanctity.

René understood that the unavoidably mimetic feature of our makeup makes us in some way spiritually permeable to each other and therefore in some way spiritually responsible for one another. Humble and self-effacing though he was, he conducted himself as a spiritual aristocrat. It is difficult to estimate, wrote Blessed John Henry Newman, “the moral power which a single individual, trained to practice what he teaches, may acquire in his own circle, in the course of years.” It was my privilege to be among those who not only to appreciated the importance of his intellectual contribution but who felt the subtle power of his spiritual integrity and the warmth and wisdom that emanated from it.

There are not many people outside of one’s family to whom one ever says aloud: “I love you.” René and I both spoke those words to one another on several of occasions, and for those moments I remain grateful beyond words.

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About Gil Bailie 2 Articles
Gil Bailie, JD, is the founder and president of The Cornerstone Forum, and the author, most recently, of God’s Gamble: The Gravitational Power of Crucified Love.